What Karl Marx still offers

[A] number of central features of Marx’s analysis remain valid and relevant. The first, obviously, is the analysis of the irresistible global dynamic of capitalist economic development and its capacity to destroy all that came before it, including even those parts of the heritage of the human past from which capitalism had itself benefited, such as family structures. The second is the analysis of the mechanism of capitalist growth by generating internal ‘contradictions’—endless bouts of tensions and temporary resolutions, growth leading to crisis and change, all producing economic concentration in an increasingly globalised economy.”

— Eric Hobsbawm, How to Change the World : Reflections on Marx and Marxism (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2011), pg. 14

The Cathedral of St. Ranke

The view that the great cathedral of history is being built brick by brick by historians, some of them filling gaps and forming pillars, while the majority of them add their small bricks in the form of monographs […] is not entirely a wrong one–but we must recognize that the greatest of cathedrals are never finished; they are in constant need of cleaning and refurbishing, indeed, of all kinds of repairs–and also that every generation may see them differently.

— John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History (Wilmington, Del. : Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000), pg. 21fn

A little color

About one-fifth of the front of the Topps Baseball 2018 Series Two baseball card pack is coated in a shiny turquoise color.

Generations of my ancestors rarely (if ever) saw a color like that. Its existence in the world was limited to the jewelry and paintings owned by the wealthy and privileged.

And now that color is coated on a piece of foil that can be bought for the equivalent of 11 minutes of work at the local minimum wage.

Perishing by publishing

[K-]72. There is no greater impediment to progress in the sciences than the desire to see it take place too quickly. This is very characteristic of brisk and lively people, which is why they seldom achieve very much: for they are cast down and give up as soon as they perceive they are not advancing. Yet they would have advanced if they had used less energy and taken more time.

— Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (translated by R. J. Hollingdale), The Waste Books (New York : New York Review of Books, 2000 [1990]), pg. 201.

Yet what any individual in the Frankish Empire [of the 8th century AD] got to read was often a matter of chance. The full range of classical literature was by no means still available in its entirety. Much had disappeared and had been lost forever. Because of lack of knowledge of the language, almost everything in Ancient Greek had by now vanished from the educational canon of the Latin people, insofar as those works had not been translated or popularized in Latin in the classical period or late antiquity. Indeed, the image we have of ancient Roman literature has to this day been fundamentally shaped by the Carolingian age’s eagerness to read such works. Every piece of Latin literature that this period managed to get hold of and save has been preserved for posterity; conversely, the works it shunned or never got to know have been lost forever.

— Johannes Fried, Charlemagne (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University, 2016), pg. 274.

The most impressive application of Ibn Khaldun’s approach is his historical and sociological elaboration of the cyclical pattern of rise, peak, and decline. If a society becomes a leading civilization or even the dominant culture in a region, according to Ibn Khaldun the peak of this civilization is always followed by a period of decline. This means that the next cohesive group that conquers this civilization is a gang of barbarians by comparison. Once they have established their control over the conquered civilization, these barbarians are attracted by its more refined aspects, such as literature, art, and science, which are subsequently assimilated or appropriated by the oppressors. The upshot is that the next group of barbarians repeats this process, as a result of which the pattern of peak and decline actually leads to an accumulation of knowledge and culture.

— Rens Bod, A New History of the Humanities; Oxford, England : Oxford University Press, 2013; pg. 97.

While voting for ALA Council this weekend, I came up with five positive characteristics in a nominee:

  1. Longer than five years’ membership in ALA. Fresh voices on Council are good (see below), but please take a few season cycles to learn from the inside how ALA works before asking to join “the governing body of ALA”.
  2. Service on either an ALA Committee or a division board of directors. Serving one level below ALA Council provides an opportunity to better understand what Council does and can do.
  3. They now work in a library. The voices of people with current and ongoing first-hand experience with the work of libraries should be the predominant voices on ALA Council.
  4. Never served on ALA Council. Fresh ideas come from fresh voices. I would support a term limit of three 3-year terms for ALA Council.
  5. Admirable record of work. From the current roster, I voted for Ciszek, Clasper, Comito, Findley, Gooch, Pace, Pressley, and Zabriskie for at-large Council seats in part because I had heard of their projects or papers.

My German friends at Ohio State laughed to hear that I had ancestors named Biedermann. To be a “Biedermann,” in German slang, is to be someone narrow and strict, someone who merely follows orders.

That joshing came to mind while reading Rick Anderson’s recent article, in which he divides fellow librarians into two groups: those who lean towards being dutiful “soldiers” and those who lean towards being willful “revolutionaries.” While weighing the relative merits of the two groups, Anderson lays a heavy thumb on the “soldiers” side of the scale. My thumb lays on the other side.

(Where Anderson applies his thumb hardest is with the bullet points in the “Soldiers and revolutionaries” section, which are practically parody. So be it, though…as we’ll soon see, what Anderson can do, I can do, too…)

Rather than use Anderson’s “soldiers” and “revolutionaries,” let’s honor the recent Fourth of July by describing the two sides as, respectively, “Tories” and “Patriots.”

Those with a predominantly Tory mindset:

  • accept the status quo
  • go along to get along
  • reliably defer to authority
  • do the work that someone else puts in front of them

Those with a predominantly Patriot mindset:

  • ask searching questions
  • challenge received assumptions
  • work independently when needed
  • build far-flung collegial relationships
  • try new things to meet new needs

To paraphrase Anderson, hardly any individual librarian can be characterized as either a pure Tory or a pure Patriot. But which mindset would you want characterizing your library in these days of transformational change?

As Anderson notes, “tightening budgets increasingly force us to choose between worthy programs and projects.” Publishers have steadily cut into library purchasing power for decades by raising their subscription rates far faster than the rate of inflation.

The traditional Tory passivity of all too many librarians–the Biedermann mentality that meekly accepts the status quo–serves students and faculty unusually poorly as we struggle with an unaffordable system of scholarly communication created by publishers for publishers.

How, then, can libraries break out of that dead-end system? They can do it by drawing on Patriot courage, leadership, and innovation.

Anderson ends his article with a heavy-handed reminder that libraries are “ethically obligated to support the mission” of their funders. Anderson implies that only “revolutionaries” will find themselves in that sort of ethical difficulty, and, as a result, risk ending up as unemployed “freelancers.”


Back in the real world…

When a librarian timidly does what he’s always done because he lacks the courage or imagination to change, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

When a librarian just wants to write the same (if ever-larger) checks to the same publishers in the same process because that’s his comfort zone, is that fulfilling an ethical obligation to the library’s funders?

Are those Tory-style lapses in meeting ethical obligations so improbable that they were not even worth mentioning?

And if they’re not so improbable, why didn’t Anderson bother to mention them?

That imbalance is the fatal weakness of his article.

Maybe he would have benefited from having some Biedermann ancestors.

When people had to see

“Before cameras, educated, well-to-do travelers had learned to sketch so that they could draw what they saw on their trips, in the same way that, before phonograph recordings, bourgeois families listened to music by making it themselves at home, playing the piano and singing in the parlor. Cameras made the task of keeping a record of people and things simpler and more widely available, and in the process reduced the care and intensity with which people needed to look at the things they wanted to remember well, because pressing a button required less concentration and effort than composing a precise and comely drawing.

–Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece : On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (New York : Penguin, 2005), pg. 33.

The importance of context

From an article in the May 24, 2014 issue of The Economist about how racial minorities in the United States live in places where they breathe dirtier air:

[…]The study does not address why [race matters more than income in determining whether someone will live exposed to dirtier air]. A possible explanation is that many Americans prefer to live among people who look like themselves. For example, well-off urban blacks may be choosing to live in traditionally black neighbourhoods, despite the worse air and the fact that they could afford to live elsewhere.

A slight re-write of the paragraph above:

[…]The study does not address why [race matters more than income in determining whether someone will live exposed to dirtier air]. A possible explanation is that people prefer to live where they will be treated like fellow human beings. For example, well-off urban blacks may be choosing to live in traditionally black neighbourhoods, despite the worse air and the fact that they could afford to live elsewhere.

The latter paragraph tells a different story; a story readers of The Economist need to hear.

Walls, cities, and barbarians

“The premodern city was a walled space protected by defensive installations. Even when walls no longer fulfilled a military purpose, they continued to operate as customs boundaries. When they lost that function too, they served as symbolic markers of space. Whole empires expressed their superiority over the ‘barbarians’ around them by the sheer force of their technological, organizational, and financial capacity to build walls. Barbarians might destroy walls–they could not put them up. Walls and gates separate city from country, compression from dispersion. […] [S]ince the 1980s Americans have enjoyed putting up new walls: the ‘gating’ of prosperous apartment complexes and city districts, combined with protective walls, tall fences, and watchtowers, is still a growing trend. This colonial practice spreads whenever income differences and socially segregated housing reach a certain threshold. It has become common even in the big cities of (still officially socialist) China.”

–Jürgen Osterhammel (trans. by Patrick Camiller), The Transformation of the World : A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University, 2014), pg. 297.

The Scots were right to vote “no” on the referendum for independence because the referendum was misleading. However Scotland voted this week, and whatever the Scots may wish, they will not be independent of England. A vote cannot widen the River Tweed. A vote cannot reduce England to having the same population and wealth as Scotland. The irresistible gravity of geography keeps Scotland in England’s orbit. Breaking away is not an option. The only option is how the terms of the relationship are defined. And Scotland will have more leverage with England in a union in which the Labour Party depends on Scottish votes than as an independent country.

Though the Scots have decided to remain in the United Kingdom, the closeness of the referendum and the panic that gripped the UK government during the last week before voting suggest a parallel between the fate of the Habsburg Empire after its great Napoleonic War struggle and the fate of the United Kingdom after World War II. Both seemed healthy and stable (though considerably weakened) for two generations. Then the cracks started to appear, with the Habsburgs having to agree to the Dual Monarchy in 1867 and the UK having to grant devolution in 1999. And now the UK is experiencing a great ferment over separatism, just as the Habsburgs did during the late 19th century.

Could the British Isles of the 21st century resemble the Central Europe of the 20th century? Could we see the United Kingdom break into five countries: Southern England, Northern England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and Northern Ireland? Could Prince George end up as George Windsor, a latter-day Otto von Habsburg, combining prestige and humility to become an honored statesman within his family’s former realm?

Literature versus composition

“[T]he culture of [collegiate] English departments [is] structured by an invidious binary opposition between writing teachers and literary scholars that could not be improved by tinkering. Because the profession was organized by–indeed, founded upon–this distinction, it could be undone only by a deconstructive process striking at its roots. […] English departments need composition as the ‘other’ of literature in order to function as they have functioned. The useful, the practical, and even the intelligible were relegated to composition so that literature could stand as the complex embodiment of cultural ideals, based upon texts in which those ideals were so deeply embedded as to require the deep analyses of a trained scholar. Teachers of literature became the priests and theologians of English, while teachers of composition were the nuns, barred from the priesthood, doing the shitwork of the field.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pgs. 35-36.

“To put it simply, the quasi-religious status once accorded English literature by a class of individuals whose background was mainly privileged and Anglo-Germanic is hardly viable any longer. […] Men and women of letters, whether in or outside of the academy, have a reduced stature today in comparison to major figures in the film and television world. Young people who once wanted to be Hemingway (and many did) now want to be Scorsese, Spike Lee, or Spielberg. Moreover, a knowledge of English literary history is simply not the password to managerial and professional positions that it may once have been. Which is another way of saying that what happened to Greek and Latin is now happening to English. What this society wants of those who graduate from its schools and colleges with degrees in the humanities–as opposed to what many of those who claim to speak for it say it wants–are, at worst, docility and grammatical competence, at best, reliability and a high level of textual skills. What this society does not want from our educational institutions is a group of people imbued with critical skills and values that are frankly antagonistic to those that prevail in our marketplaces, courts, and legislative bodies.”

–Robert Scholes, The Rise and Fall of English : Reconstructing English as a Discipline (New Haven, Conn. : Yale University, 1998), pg. 19. (Italics in the original.)